Face Out: ABA Board Member Pete Mulvihill on His Life Among Books

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In this installment in our series profiling American Booksellers Association Board members, Bookselling This Week talks to Pete Mulvihill, the co-owner of Green Apple Books, which has two locations in San Francisco. Mulvihill is in his first three-year term as a Board director.

Bookselling This Week: Please talk about your early experiences with reading and books.

Pete Mulvihill: I was a library kid. My mom took my sister and me weekly, and I loved roaming free, sneaking into the adult section, and stumbling on subjects and books that I never imagined existed. It was self-guided discovery at its finest, and the price was right for my flinty family. It sounds heretical for an ABA board member to admit, but I didn’t actually buy books until college. We were library kids through and through.

BTW: Did you hold other positions in the book industry before becoming a bookseller?

PM: Nope. I had done a little teaching and a lot of scooping ice cream.

BTW: How did you begin as a bookseller, and how long after starting in bookselling did you begin to feel that you had found a special vocation?

PM: I stumbled into bookselling as a temp in 1993, helping out the then-bookkeeper at Green Apple. I moved into receiving, went to grad school at night, and assumed it was just a job, albeit one I enjoyed greatly. As opportunities arose at Green Apple, I took on more and more responsibility and learned more about the store, bookselling, and our customers. I only realized I was a “lifer” when the original owner offered to sell the store to me and my now-partners Kevin Ryan and Kevin Hunsanger. Actually, even while we were buying the store, in the back of my mind, I thought I might figure out my “real” career at some point. But the experience of 20-plus years of bookselling, my fine partners, the smart staff we’ve had over the years, every positive customer review on Yelp, every meeting of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, each delighted kid leaving with a new book, every Winter Institute and BookExpo America — it all adds up to an almost inevitable and rewarding life in bookselling.

I felt incredibly lucky to have landed at Green Apple in a time of opportunity, to have earned the trust and respect of the original owner and my partners, and to have happened into such a worthy field of work.

BTW: When did you first become a member of ABA? What motivated you to join?

PM: Green Apple had been an on-and-off member of ABA, but the original owner was not terribly engaged in the broader bookselling world. That’s one of the things my partners and I changed. We reach beyond our walls to learn more, share our experience, build bridges, foster community, etc. And ABA has been, for us, a fulcrum for all that — education, sharing best practices, advocating for a level playing field, developing technology. The second Winter Institute (our first) was probably the moment when we realized we would always get our dues’ worth from ABA and then some.

BTW: What do you think are some of the most important changes in the industry since you became a bookseller?

PM: When people hear what I do for a living, they furrow their brow and say “oh, that sounds hard” or “how is that these days?” The truth is, the sky has been falling as long as I’ve been a bookseller (22 years). First, there were the discounters, then the superstore chains, then Amazon, then Amazon in used books, then e-books, and now a brick-and-mortar Amazon. So, yes, we face myriad challenges — from broader fights like sales tax equity and slim margins to local challenges like a high minimum wage to our own building’s flaws (old plumbing, flooring on its last legs). But we will continue to adapt and thrive as long as customers keep buying books here. We survive because enough readers vote with their wallets to keep us here.

The Internet has changed things radically, of course, but often for the better. We save literally thousands of dollars a month that we used to spend on yellow pages ads; social media has allowed us to connect cheaply with customers even when they aren’t here; and our systems — from ordering and returns to bookkeeping and point-of-sale transactions — have gotten much more efficient over the years.

BTW: What are your key goals as an ABA Board member for fostering the book industry, and bookselling in particular?

First, at the most basic level, I hope to give back to an organization that has helped my store tremendously over the years.

I’m also interested in developing technology, be it on the IndieCommerce side or the current IndieBound central selling site trial, which I hope will better enable our author partners to drive sales to the indie channel. Seeing the sausage being made sometimes reveals the limits of a trade organization, of course, but it also reveals the dedication of ABA staff to keep pushing the ball uphill.

I’d also like to see the Shop Local movement furthered as we best can together. It’s been a long battle in San Francisco, but is finally gaining steam.

Finally, now is the time to double down on efforts to work with our publishing partners on improving margins. Since we can’t raise prices but face wage pressures, stagnant consumer spending growth in many regions, ever-more-costly health insurance, etc., we need to work on getting better terms. Our channel has more “mindshare” than “market share,” and I hope publishers will continue to see the value we add and acknowledge the challenges we face in the current low-margin models. Perhaps a two-pronged approach to education is what we need: ABACUS for booksellers and — to educate our publishing friends — a session on bookstore financials for publishers (which is being presented at Winter Institute for the first time in 2016).

BTW: What are you reading now?

PM: Mission High by Kristina Rizga. It’s a truly fascinating look at public education in America through a San Francisco high school — data and testing vs. community-driven schools developing their own curriculum — that kind of thing. The book interests me not just as a parent of twins who will be choosing a high school in about four years, but also because it really speaks to the policy wonk in me. And I just love high-quality journalism on almost any topic.

BTW: You get a day to walk through any city, town, or landscape with any one writer. What writer and what place?

I know I should say something deep, like Neruda on Procida or John Muir in Yosemite, but instead I’ll reveal my literary man-crush — a pub crawl with Willy Vlautin in any lively city, New York or New Orleans perhaps.